Wednesday, 29 December 2010

What it means to be working-class

I thought Lynsey Hanley, as so often, hit the nail on the head:
The iron rule of being working class in today’s Guardian. She explains that for a kid to get on and get into the sort of education -- the sort of degree in the sort of university -- that will mean you’re on a steady £30,000 at 30 is these days a hopeless prospect. Hanley puts it in a way we seldom hear:

While in government, Labour consistently missed the point about the demoralising nature of low-paid insecure work, which, unless they are superhuman (as business and government demands of them) traps people in crisis-management mode: bills, debt, childcare, housing, on a rota of uncertainty. It may well be the case that flexible jobs are better than no jobs; the question is whether children whose parents are barely getting by can see a real and concrete route to a more comfortable life.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The comics kids need

Here’s an interview with Jim Medway about his work in children’s comics:

While the core or intended audience for this radio programme was evidently comics aficionados and the interest in the first part won’t go much beyond them, later on in the interview Jim points out how lacking the market is in good print comics for children. The discussion here is more generally relevant and concerns the sort of culture kids are exposed to, an issue of broad educational and cultural concern.

Comics shops have nothing for kids -- all manga, war stuff, ninjas -- nothing about kids themselves and their worlds. He indicates his thoughts about the alternatives they could do with, and says a bit about his efforts to provide them.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Alec Clegg again

An article* by Sir Peter Newsam is one of several about Sir Alec Clegg (see posting Developing teachers: theory or example?) in an issue of Education 3-13 (2008, 36:2 pp.109-116). According to Clegg, there were two approaches to education: pot-filling and fire-lighting; a combination of both was needed but it’s clear Clegg thought that without the fire-lighting the pot-filling wouldn’t be very effective. Newsam writes:

“There was, in his [Clegg’s] view, no mystery about how ‘fire-lighting’ could improve the quality of work and behaviour in any school. And because his conclusions have so little to do with the preoccupations of today and so much to do with the distinctive quality of what was achieved in the West Riding, they need to be set out fully, so far as possible in words he used in speeches of the 1960s [thus I take it the following is a composite that Newsam has put together]:

What then are the conditions that bring about this change in the potential of the school community? First of course a teacher who has at least average concern to do his job well, is sympathetic, and loves children. This isn’t asking too much and most heads fit the description. Then, he must have an impulse to do something differently because he believes it will yield better results. This belief may be induced in a variety of ways: he may have read something, got an idea from his head or from a colleague, picked up an idea on a course, and so on. Then, what I think is perhaps one of the most important of all conditions is that what he wants to try out must give the child a deeply satisfying sense of success and achievement. After this comes the recognition of this success by other children and by teachers. This stage is the acceptance of the child as a significant person in the group in which he moves, it is something we all crave, a basic need of the human spirit. It is this which spurs the child on to greater endeavour, which with the wise guidance of a good teacher leads to further success, and this success in its turn is the impulse of the next forward step. Let us forget the child for a moment, and think now of the teacher. He has had an idea, he has tried it out, and it has seemingly worked on his pupils. His need then is often for confirmation of belief in his idea, he wants to talk it over with someone, and he too needs what the child needs, almost as much as the child needs it. He needs the recognition and approbation of those with whom he works and as it was with the child so it will be for the teacher a spur to renewed effort. In all the many examples I have seen of schools suddenly becoming alight, the original flame has been kindled by a creative subject – art or craft or expressive movement – and the conflagration has then spread. Now I know that this may have happened in this county because I have gifted colleagues in those fields who have sown the first seed, as it were, and this may be the explanation. It may be that if we had equally gifted folk dealing with mathematics the same vital seeds might have been sown. Certainly I believe this to be possible. But I, nevertheless, think that it is easier to start with the creative subjects as one’s achievement is more obvious – one looks upon what one has done and sees that it is good, and others whose approval matters see it rather more easily.”

There’s a terrific formulation by Sir Peter at the end of his article:

“There are some who strut and fret on the educational stage these days who appear to have little understanding of the range and depth of the tradition within which Alec Clegg worked and seem to envisage a curricular diet and procedures for motivating high performance more appropriate to a minor preparatory school than to the educational system of a great nation.”

*’What price hyacinths? An appreciation of the work of Sir Alec Clegg’

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Knowledge in Chinese classrooms

Jan Derry draws my attention to an excellent letter by David Lambert, Professor of Geography Education at the Institute of Education, in the Independent on Thursday, about the Chinese apparently getting it right in at least some classrooms:

I've referred more than once (e.g. at the end of this") to Jan Derry’s work on the nature of knowledge in the school curriculum, drawing on inferentialist theory. Here’s a link Jan has kindly surprised to an article that gives an idea of her thinking (it’s a prepublication version so there are no copyright problems):

Derry, Jan (2008) Abstract rationality in education: from Vygotsky to Brandom. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 27 (1). pp. 49-62.

For those who’d like to read more, here are some more of her papers:

Derry, Jan (2008) Technology-enhanced learning: a question of knowledge. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 42 (3-4). pp. 505-519.

Derry, Jan (2004) The unity of intellect and will: Vygotsky and Spinoza. Educational Review, 56 (2). pp. 113-120.

Derry, Jan (2007) Epistemology and conceptual resources for the development of learning technologies. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning , 23 (6). pp. 503-510.

Golding again

Just got John Carey’s biography, William Golding: the man who wrote Lord of the Flies. All the facts are in there about how he wrote the book and got it published. (See earlier posting.)

I suppose I shouldn’t be disappointed by this but the book is as good as it is because he had a brilliant editor at Faber. Charles Monteith persuaded Golding to cut out an atomic war at the beginning and a naval battle at the end from which the ‘trim cruiser’ that finally rescues the boys emerges.

But what’s most disappointing to me is that the Simon we have in the printed version owes his fascinating mysteriousness to ruthless excision. In the original Simon was very explicitly a Christ figure who has direct contact with something, a god, or God, or a person -- Golding tells Monteith explicitly that he needs to ‘“convey a theophany of some sort or else he [Simon] won’t be as big a figure as he ought”’, a ‘theophany’, Carey explains, being the ‘appearance, or showing forth, of a god’ (159). The reason Simon retires into a secret place is for a voice to speak to him -- it assures him for instance that Ralph will get home safely, and indeed in our text Simon does give that assurance to Ralph, though we no longer know where he has got his assurance from. ‘He also led some of the boys in Good Dances on the beach’ (154).

In the original, too, ‘Simon has an intuition that there is a “prohibition” against eating the fruit on the island.’ And he actually meets and dances in the clearing (with the butterflies) with the ‘person’ who had done the prohibiting. Then, after hearing the pig’s head speak he faints, and then on recovering has the thought that he could offer himself to the beast as a sacrifice so the others could be spared. Terrible stuff, as Monteith realised; Golding would need to to make it so that everything had a rational explanation.

So in the end, as a result of Monteith’s patient persuasion, ‘“the allegory, the theophany, is [still there as] the imaginative foundation...[but is there] like all foundations, to be concealed and built on”’ (160). ‘At one point [Monteith] crosses out more than a page in which Ralph thinks Simon has an “aura” round him and was “charged with a particular significance”’ (162).

It will be hard now for me to read the novel again without being constantly aware of its ghost predecessor, Golding’s earlier version(s), which would have been an intolerable book. But I should put those thoughts aside. Golding after all showed no unwillingness to go along with Monteith’s amendments and seems indeed to have recognised that they would make for a better book. The Waste Land, too, we recall, was as much Pound’s work as Eliot’s -- or at least Pound made it into something quite different from what it had been. Nothing wrong with literary collaborations: a work emerges and has its autonomy; once it’s accomplished and there, the author(s) too, as well as the reader, can contemplate it as something outside themselves with its own existence and the right to work its own power on its own terms; the details of how it came into being are finally irrelevant. Much as Golding is diminished in my eyes when I learn of his original conception, he’s restored by his recognition of the poetic value of what emerged.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Developing teachers: theory or example?

These thoughts are occasioned by looking at a biography of Sir Alec Clegg, the last Chief Education Officer of the West Riding of Yorkshire which was abolished in 1974 (Peter Darvill, Sir Alec Clegg: A Biographical Study, 2000).

Clegg’s philosophy in the West Riding (primary schools, principally) was to promote the arts and expression, especially dance, PE and movement, even at the expense, some thought, of the 3R’s and the academic disciplines. The book’s writer is not a philosopher or deep thinker and if there was a philosophy in a worked-out sense behind Clegg’s ‘philosophy’ this isn’t the place to find it. One’s impression is that he went by what he saw to be engaging and changing children, and he shared that approach with his colleagues and advisers.

Clegg’s approach was clearly visible in the authority’s residential courses for teachers. One of his colleagues commented -- in the true West Riding spirit -- on the difference in value between course sessions run by arts practitioners and by university academics. (As an example of the former, the first course on ‘Poetry and Children’ involved Edith Sitwell, Robert Gittings, Edmund Blunden and Kathleen Raine -- big names in poetry in what seems to have been the late 1940s or early 50s.)

‘Diana Jordan’s confidential comments on a course run by Leeds University professors at Woolley Hall on the writing of English in spring 1958 were typical of those sent to Alec Clegg on courses of this type. She wrote-
“I cannot see that these University professors can do anything but make education more and more complex….Yet, when we listen to writers and poets, masters of the art of language, talking at other courses everyone understands, everyone goes with them and is lifted to higher realms of comprehension.”’ (106)

I suspect that what ‘theory’ lay behind this reliance on poets and artists was a mixture of T.S. Eliot (‘Notes Towards a Definition of Culture’) and Herbert Read (Education through Art). I.e. the theory was probably thin, but it’s doubtful whether any adequate theory was available at the time on the teaching of writing and better the intuitions and the ‘nose’ for a good classroom of experienced teachers like Clegg’s team than half-baked theory and mechanical procedures. Ditto for the arts, though I don’t know enough about this. What you’d need would be a good theory of semiotic (symbolic) mediations plus a good psychology so you could say how movement and sketching plants and writing poetry affected, well, let’s say the structure (affective and cognitive) of the mind or psyche.

Clegg was influenced above all by classrooms he saw in which children were engaged and creative and produced expressive work of high quality. While still at Birmingham during the war he visited Steward Street School, an elementary school in depressing industrial surroundings whose headteacher, Arthur Stone, had a rare appreciation of ‘the beauty that came from these children’ through art work. Stone wrote:

'The three "R's" I decided, should become a secondary consideration, for I believed that, if I could get that confidence, that interest, that concentration from each child which arise from creative art, I had the ground well prepared then for the three "R's". It must not be thought that I undervalue in any way the importance of the three "R's". I believe, however, that there are things of much greater importance, the development of the personality of a child, his growth as a whole, demand greater attention than the “R’s”.’ (13)

I think that if I were placing such weight on the arts I would rather emphasise the effects he regards as secondary and preparatory, getting confidence, interest and concentration, the last particularly being a prerequisite for all that intellectual advance that I’d want to put first in my educational aims. However that may be, Stone’s results were evidently impressive and quite unexpected in what would have been a poor and deprived population in 1940. Clegg’s team also observed other benefits from an arts-based approach adopted by schools in two villages as a result of a course in 1948: ‘“The awakened imagination and free expression is beginning to produce a flow of language that cannot be stopped”’ (45).

Further elaborating the distinction between teachers’ courses run by educationists and those by practitioners, Clegg -- and this seems absolutely characteristic of the West Riding approach to improving education -- comes down firmly in favour of the latter:

‘In October 1945 Alec Clegg had described the sort of refresher course he envisaged -
"One type is obvious, teachers must be acquainted with the latest methods in the teaching of their subjects, arithmetic or dancing, Latin or field games. More important, however, is the need for a direct attack on their general sensibilities and breadth of outlook. This can only be effected by bringing them into contact with the best minds in the country, either in industry or music, commerce or art, agriculture or theatre. These two aims can be combined in one course by the careful selection of speakers and lecturers.”’ (31)

You improve teaching by working on the teachers' ‘general sensibilities and breadth of outlook’ -- and by implication you do the same with children. But we note that the ‘best minds’ he wants teachers to encounter are, in each pair, from (a) a branch of the productive economy and (b) one of the arts. No mathematicians, scientists or scholars. Is his an approach which, relying as it does on learning from experts’ practice, is left with no way of learning from practices that aren’t practical but mental and symbolic (i.e. that work with symbolic forms like language and number)?

It’s hard to imagine what the equivalent experience might be in a maths or history or chemistry class that could have made an impression on Clegg like the one for which his art adviser, Basil Rocke, was responsible. (Rocke had studied children’s art in Vienna under Franz Cizak and was a founder member of the Euston Road School of Painters -- such was the calibre of the people Clegg surrounded himself with. Arthur Stone, too, joined him.)

"I so well remember the shock that I had when I went into a school in which he [Rocke] had done much work with a very gifted teacher and some thirty-eight paintings of flowers done by thirty-eight children, most of them children of South Yorkshire miners. They were sensitive individual paintings of a quality which I had never seen before and I remember my unspoken astonishment as for the first time I accepted Basil's conviction "that any thirty-eight children treated as these had been treated would become what they had become and would do as they had done." Alec Clegg described the paintings as " ... the instrument of my education." (47)

This is getting too long for a blog so let me draw this to a close with three observations:

(1) By all accounts what happened in the West Riding primary schools was an extraordinary flowering, above all of that ‘beauty’ that Stone had earlier made to occur at Steward Street, and of directed and purposeful curiosity (notably deployed in the local environment, especially as nature study). Nor can there be any doubt that for children to be creative, curious and purposeful is a fine thing in itself, regardless of other educational aims. The sense that Clegg and the teachers and advisers who worked with him had was that expression in words or art or movement was a release of the self, a liberation, an unlocking, and my feeling is that that was a theory with a good basis in experience and one on which a good primary education -- or a large part of it -- could indeed be based. I would, I think (based purely on reading descriptions and seeing some of the work) want all children to have the West Riding primary school experience.

(2) But not just because it’s not obvious how the transition is to be made -- the great divide to be crossed -- from experiential, expressive, curiosity- and sensual delight-led learning into the domain of abstraction, system, concepts, that of the academic disciplines as described by Michael Young (Bringing Knowledge Back In) and Jan Derry (various articles). However, it may be that the West Riding worked out ways of doing this too, though we know that Clegg found his secondary schools far more intractable. (Part of his answer, I don’t know how successful, was to break into them by extending primary education through middle schools to age 13). The problem is that Darvill doesn’t really understand the issue and his book isn’t a systematic or comprehensive inquiry. It’s time for a good history of Clegg and his West Riding schools.

(3) I'm in something we call the London English Research Group, the aim of which is to work towards an adequate theory for English. But in the group we know that amongst our PGCE students some who who are brilliant teachers are weak in and uninterested in the theory, and vice versa. West Riding teachers were ‘liberated’ into teaching better not by acquiring a better theory but by ‘broadening their sensibilities’; US teachers are ‘liberated’ in teaching writing better by being given the chance through local Writing Projects to experience being writers themselves. So, what exactly is the role of educational theory in producing better teachers? I don’t feel I can give a clear and confident answer to that.

Clifford Hanley's grammar school boys

Amazing what leads on education books Ross McKibbin provides, considering his Classes and Cultures: England 1918-51 (Oxford: 1998) is on such a broad theme. Perhaps the most enjoyable has been, from 1960 (found it in a 1989 edition), Clifford Hanley’s The Taste of Too Much. (Years ago I’d read his Dancing in the Streets, about a Glasgow childhood.)

The writing in this book too is sharp and lively. The education interest is the depiction of the Scottish equivalent of a mixed grammar school, it culture and the conversation of its pupils. The dialogue is great throughout, especially that of the main character, Peter Haddow. Delicious also is the large hilarious rough family next door, the Dougans.

Some of the best repartee is between Peter and his teachers. Thus the PE teacher (nickname Kong) has them jumping over a horse. He picks on a flabby, unfit boy, Rule, who fails to get over or even seriously attempt it:

'Do you know why you can't do it, Rule? Funk. That's all. Funk. And what is the cure for funking a jump?' He looked round the class for support as they surrounded him, and if it was a pity that his eye had stopped at Haddow, well, even Haddow had enough wits to know the answer to that question.

'Give it up and do something else, sir,' Peter said gravely.

'Did I ask for your opinion, Haddow?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Well, I don't think much of it. Your wits are wool-gathering.' Peter hugged himself in joy at the phrase, and continued to stand with a slightly hurt, puzzled expression.

Peter and friends talk on the way home.

'You're a nut case, Haddow,' Davie said.

'Une veritable tête valise,' Peter agreed.

'What do you have to go and get Kong's back up for? "Give it up and try something else." You're just asking him...'

Here’s another piece, this time with the English teacher:

During one of his majestic strolls round the English class, Gutty Greer rested his bulk on Peter's desk.

'Now is the arum winter of our mm thingummyjig, eh, Haddow?'

'Yes, sir, definitely.'

'Shades of the hum prison-house begin to close around the mm growing whatsitsname, eh?'

'I thought it was the other way round, sir,' Peter said with excessive respect.

'You have a rare mm talent for being insolent, Haddow, without saying anything the court could pin to you. Did you mm know that?'

'I do my best, sir.'

'Rare talent, my boy. Nourish it, nourish it.' Peter looked round to see if Tom Arthur was going into his black seethe, but even Arthur's secretly fostered hate for him seemed to have withered away in the aimless purgatory that fell on the class between sitting the Highers and waiting for the results. Gutty was clearly bored himself. He made no move to shift from Peter's desk.

'You're more black a visaged than usual, Haddow,' he mused. 'Don't worry, you'll mm get your English.' Peter nodded without excitement.

‘What is it, then? The law's hum delays? The pangs of mhm despised love?'

'Ah, yes.' Peter heaved a theatrical sigh, and Gutty brightened up.

'Bliss is it in that dawn to be alive, boy, but to be mm young is um . . .'


'Serves you right, boy, nobody asked you to be young.'

'I know. I was thinking of striding over the moors with unseeing eyes, would you recommend that, sir?'

'Plenty of good um precedents, Haddow. Dying young is widely recommended too.'

'Yes, it's certainly a consummation devoutly to be wished, sir,' Peter agreed. Gutty grunted, heaved himself off the desk, cuffed Peter lightly on the back of the head and ambled down the aisle.

This reminds me vividly of the way us cocky lads talked at Bradford (Boys) Grammar School. Was there the equivalent in girls’ schools? can’t recall there being from any novels.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Comics deficit

Is anyone who reads this interested in comics and their potential?

Someone who does and who thinks kids are at present ill-served by publishers, comics shops and bookshops is Jim Medway. Here’s a new interview with him:

Golding, Lord of the Flies

There’s been a Golding stir lately: biography by John Carey, mentioned by Gabriel Josipovici as one of the last English novelists, with Muriel Spark, to maintain the Modernist refusal to write like Victorians (What Ever Happened to Modernism? and articles) -- and frequently named by people we’re interviewing about their schooling in the 50s and early 60s.

I taught Lord of the Flies in the mid-60s myself, I think for a CSE course (not Mode 3 -- this was London, a conservative exam board), didn’t like it and hadn’t re-read it since, but now I have, twice, motivated by those references. I’d also read The Inheritors, long ago (about the prose style of which the linguist Michael Halliday had illuminating things to say -- I wish he’d written more on literary texts) and had found it -- well, the word was ‘interesting’, and that’s the view I’ve held over the years about both books, that Golding in each case found an issue and did a rather schematic treatment of it: boys reverting to savagery, gentle Neanderthals supplanted by aggressive homo sapiens (I’ve probably misremembered that).

I was particularly motivated to re-read Lord of the Flies by a quotation that John Carey had used (I think in What Use Are the Arts? -- bad book but great final section where he forgets his philistine pose and hails, in traditional terms but with originality and insight, the use that literature is). It was the passage in which Simon’s body is gradually covered by the wavelets with their tiny phosphorescent creatures and carried out to sea. I had to agree that this was wonderful writing, and it wasn’t at all the sort of thing I’d noticed in the novel when I first read it.

On my first re-reading, by a third of the way through I’d decided that I still didn’t like it. There was something unpleasant -- distant and standoffish -- in the writing, particularly about the boys. I read on and became more and more impressed and was utterly gripped by the last couple of chapters. I then wondered whether there had been something wrong with my re-reading of the start of the book, so I went on and re-read it again. Fortunately I had a couple of comfortable two-hour train journeys to do it on. This time I was impressed throughout and now I realise that Lord of the Flies is, as people had been saying, a great book.

I also realised how badly I must have taught literature in my first few years of teaching, and how inadequate my literary education had been at Oxford. (And how small a part of our education our degree course contributes, compared with what we learn later in the course of reading and working.) I don’t think I had a clue what books and plays were doing.

Some observations on the book from my re-readings:

(1) Yes, it’s about a descent into savagery but if you look at the distribution of attention it’s as much about nature and cosmos -- the island and its constantly shifting states, the movements of its small creatures and its huge trees, its plants, its geology, its weather, its heat; and the planet in its setting in time and space. We almost never see the boys without seeing also the light shifting on them and making shadows, the salt drying on their limbs, the breeze disturbing their hair... The human story is just part of what’s going on, a brief and trivial interlude. Even the burning of the island at the end will not be terminal. The formation of the rocks in past eons is described. Roger throws a stone that had once -- in geological time -- ‘lain on the sands of another shore’ (Faber 1958 edition, 67). The tide that carries the corpse away is the work of ‘sun and moon... pulling’ (170). Beyond, the stars -- ‘the miraculous, throbbing stars’ (63) -- are referred to frequently, and not just as things seen in the sky.

It’s this distribution of attention, in which nature and cosmos are addressed as seriously as the human story, that gradually makes this novel, that starts off in familiar realist mode, into a different kind from, say, the excellent realist writing of a Le Carré.

It’s into nature and cosmos that the poetry in the prose goes. But not only: ‘Passions beat about Simon on the mountain-top with awful wings’ (78).

I'm not sure that larger, cosmos-wide narrative scope succeeds in placing the little local doings of the boys into a natural or planetary or cosmological perspective - sub specie aeternitatis. The boys’ doings are still the boys’s doings, human doings, and I read them as a human myself, quite differently than I do the descriptions of the breezes among the creepers or the collapse of rocks into oceans over centuries. And who does this narrator think he is to take on himself the view of someone who, as if from outside, sees both humanity and nature and regards them as somehow equivalent facets of the same story?

(2) It’s a celebration of thought, Vygotsky’s ‘higher mental functions’, an account of emergence into thought and a lament about its cost. Piggy has command of it; Simon thinks -- is actually sceptical -- but is unable to give voice to his thoughts; Ralph thinks intermittently and increasingly, gradually becoming a thinker, emerging into thought, coming to recognise its necessity and Piggy’s superiority in it and is in consequence said by Jack (or is it Roger) to be getting ‘like Piggy’ and ‘not one of us’, not spontaneous, reckless and fun-filled. ‘Again he fell into that strange mood of speculation that was so foreign to him.’ And while essential, thought is a responsibility, a burden -- like keeping the fire going and building shelters instead of playing at hunting -- ‘the world of longing and baffled common-sense’, so different from Jack’s ‘brilliant world of hunting, tactics, fierce exhilaration, skill’ (77). ‘He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life’ (83). Ralph’s thinking at the end is breaking down -- the boys are losing their minds -- a curtain keeps flapping in his, cutting off his train of thought.

(3) We get interiority -- Ralph’s thoughts and those of Simon (the most interesting character whose full depths never find expression). The narrator’s entry into these is sympathetic. But at the same time he’s detached and proffers an adult point of view on the proceedings: ‘This toy of voting was almost as pleasing as the conch’ (24).

(4) It’s difficult -- I still don’t have a clear mental map of the island, despite constant allusions to left, right, seaward, lagoonward etc. (Would a map have done any harm? yes, because its not-fully-explored, not-known character is important throughout.) The succession of episodes and locations is quite confusing -- I have to make a deliberate effort to keep track of it. How many boys are there? How many bigguns -- just the ones who get named or are there more?

But there are also things that never get explicitly: why does Simon go off on his own? what exactly does he know and realise? what is this wisdom that he seems to have? When Simon looks away from the pig’s head on the stick (the Lord of the Flies), ‘his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition’ (152). What did my fifth years in 1965 make of that? what did I? what do I now? I still don’t know what that recognition is.

(5) The characters: those who can think (Piggy, Simon) and are good: despised, not likeable, handicapped. Jack, Roger: evil from the start -- that’s made quite clear (‘He [Ralph] felt himself facing something ungraspable. The eyes that looked so intently at him were without humour’ -- 40). (The start of the story, that is: we all know kids who appear evil at 11 or 12 -- it doesn’t mean original sin, from birth.) The twins, Sam and Eric: good but weak. It’s a poor lookout for humanity -- nothing was done, hard to see what could have been. And it seems that’s the way it is -- in the book -- which I think was one strong reason why I so disliked it in 1965. It seemed implicitly to argue the necessity of authority -- a naval officer in white uniform -- to keep civilisation afloat and prevent the descent into savagery. ‘Samneric protested [at their capture] out of the heart of civilisation’ (198). Civilisation is what saves us, not anything more fundamental in our nature.

(6) For Josipovici, Modernism was the most recent response, out of several in the course of western history, to a sense of the loss of an old innocence and unselfconsciousness, to the ‘disenchantment’ of the world. Jack and his hunters recover or reinvent the (savage) enchanted world of myth and ritual. Ralph ‘grows up’, as out of medieval slumber into Reformation, thinks and is troubled.

And rescue is the idiotic, Home Counties banality of that naval officer.

‘Ralph shouted against the noise. “Which is better, law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?”’

The latter don’t come out of the story too well, but the former, too, seem to leave much to be desired.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

More on teaching poetry

In the last post that I’ve just put up I mentioned my perplexity when it came to ‘teaching’ formally simple, minimalist (unrhetorical, non-adjectival) poems like those that came out of Europe (and Israel) after the Second World War, or for that matter ostensibly ‘simple’ lyrics like Shakespeare’s songs or Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

I believed in the value of students reflecting on poems in small group discussions and in writing, but it was hard to get these to happen at a satisfying level with all but a minority of trusty regulars. In turning the students to talking or writing, what I wanted above all to avoid was the usual routine of asking questions, turning the thing into an exercise with tried recipes or a sort of comprehension exercise. In writing I searched for a genre that would encompass the sort of mixed, miscellaneous, affect plus intellect, association plus analysis that James Britton named (unfortunately because it was misleading) the Expressive. (The name was misleading but the thing existed all right -- he exactly identified a form of language use that was characteristic, perhaps dominant, in children of primary and early secondary school age -- that is, on those occasions when they were able to write what came naturally.) This would be a first step on a long transition from naive immediate response to the more specialised, functionally differentiated literary essay -- but one which the writer would as it were wear comfortably and have recourse to as productive means of discovering his or her own thoughts because the latter arose from his or her own responses, questions and puzzlements rather than from a teacher’s preemptive inquisition. My transitional genre would have educational value rather than being primarily a means of testing the student.

I set out my thoughts on this ‘missing link’ genre and reported on my attempts to get it to happen at Crofton Secondary Modern School near Wakefield (1973-77) in Finding a Language (1980) -- try the skip outside your nearest library. But I think I only once found what I was really looking for. A student called Karen -- forgotten her surname, sorry, probably 4th year (year 10) in a mixed ability class, wrote something in response to a (translated) poem by Karl Krolow. Karen’s writing delighted me because she wasn’t one of the reliable regulars on whom I could count because they were already by background or whatever inclined in a literary and studious direction; I think I’d hardly noticed her work before she came up with this.

I’ve put both the poem and Karen’s piece below. I used them quite a bit in talks, workshops and courses and somewhere in an article.

Now my question is this: was I the only English teacher struggling to find a genre in which students responding to poems could be expansive, intelligent, generative and undirected? I don’t recall (with my highly defective memory) reading any other examples of student writing that seemed like attempts to meet the same lack. Why wasn’t it, isn’t it, a huge issue? surely teachers don’t actually like the stuff most of their kids write about poetry? or think it’s of much value? or perhaps I've just forgotten or have been oblivious a body of good work on the issue.

Anyway, here are Krolow and Karen (bless her -- I owe her a few royalties):


Out of hiding it came,
Raised dead metal to life.
The last negotiators
Peeled off their gloves
And left. Their smiles
A coinage withdrawn

Out of hiding it came.
The place it looked at
Is lost.
The doors fly open,
The windows get smashed.
Ashes and mortar
Scatter into eyes.
Lips shut
Under thumps from fists.
The squalid night holds ready
Its attacks and black minutes.
Soon the hearts
Will stop beating
Behind the curtain of rust.

Out of hiding it came.
It will manhandle us.
We may still leave the house
And gaze into the sky of bulbs.
But in the suburbs
The slogans are posted,
Soon the street fighting
Will reach us.
Soon we shall be alone
With the muzzles of guns.
Which of us shall be
The first to fall forward
Across his table?

Karl Krolow
translated by Christopher Middleton

The poem I will write about is a very good and mature one. It is mainly about beating people up and murdering and all that sort of stuff. It has three paragraphs and the beginning of each one it starts off with the words `Out of hiding it came'. I think this is to express and make you want to reach out of the air and into the poem and it makes you feel as if you were there. It is about some men who have a job of some sort to do. They collect their weapons from a place unknown to be used again later.

They go, and like experts peel off their gloves with a serious look on their face. The quiet place now becomes a death scene. A door is kicked open and windows are smashed, the people, whoever they are set a fire going. The bits of ashes fly into open eyes and loudmouths with their mouths open. The experts thump and abduct limbs from their normal position. Pain, tears and blood and sweat mix together. It must smell like a slaughter-house, a sickly smell. The smell of death. The black and evil night sits quiet and still not moving a muscle. No police sirens sound, just a deathly and unearthly evil, smelly silence.

The fire is ablaze now, orange, red and then to crimson and a murky brown colour. The fire burns. Soon all will be left is a few bits of wood and metal and rust and bodies, cold and stiff - dead.

After this outside it can still kill. What is it? No body knows for sure. They can guess and say but they don't know for sure. It could kill you and mutilate you. You can leave your home, but it is still there, waiting, waiting. In the suburbs, posters stuck on walls, fences and around lamp-posts. Maybe they say, things like `Kill the mods' or `Down with the Protestants'.

Soon all the fighting in the street all around town will reach you. You don't know when, but it will, and it will hurt. You will soon be all alone with a cold stretch of metal under your chin and in your stomach then they will blast your guts to the other side of the suburbs. You will wonder which of you will be the first to lay dead in some dark alleyway or in a corner of a room or in bed asleep. That would be best. In bed asleep. But you will die in a scene of death. Everybody dreams of death. That's all everybody thinks about. What would be worse though is to die after watching your wife and her baby being shot in the head, and their eyes popping out. A lot of people would not tell on violent people because they would be scared of getting beat up. Most violence occurs in America and Ireland. I wonder if the writer, Karl Krolow, likes violence or has had any bad experiences.

The men that he speaks of in his poem sound like real smoothies or old time gangsters. I think more people are killed by violence than by accident. I expect there is more violence in the world than there was years ago. Violence starts in a lot of people when they are young, like squashing insects and grabbing cats tails. Parents start off violence sometimes, by telling their children to be big and to fight back. In the poem they write about violence as if it was an everyday chore. Which it is really. Especially with teens and people in the United States of America. In the poem violence happens at night-time. The night-time expresses the word insanity. I wonder if Karl was speaking about a certain race of people in a certain part of the world. The form of violence used in the poem is by murder. There are many more forms of violence. Violence causes devastation all over the world. Why did Karl write this poem? Maybe it was to show everyone what violence is doing to us and to the world. Maybe he is trying to teach us a lesson. I don't see any point in violence. Why can't people just accept each other's differences and make do with it? I believe in using violence in self-defence. How much longer will violence carry on? I don't know why but barking dogs remind me of violence. If we were all blown up by a few atom bombs, it would end all violence and you would not be able to feel a thing.

I suppose you could call it `violence ending in violence'. I think this poem makes you think as if there is something out waiting to get you. I like the idea of `violence ending in violence'.


Penguin Modern European Poets

Somebody thought I might appreciate the poems by Dan Pagis in the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. Indeed I did -- here are a couple of pages from the book. Note particularly ‘Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freight Car’. (Click to enlarge.)

‘The Portrait’ continues over the page so that the whole prose translation goes:

The child is not sitting still. It’s hard for me to catch the line of his cheeks. I draw one line and his wrinkles multiply. I dip the brush and his lips become twisted, his hair goes grey, his skin, turning blue, peels from his bones. He is gone. The old man is gone, and I, what am I to do.

I realised the name Dan Pagis was familiar and remembered that in one school or other I’d used ‘The Last Ones’, in a verse translation that I imagine I got from the journal Modern Poetry in Translation, to which my wife and I used to subscribe, I think after attending one magnificent International Poetry Festival at the Royal Festival Hall.

But at first I wondered whether I’d got it from one of the volumes in the Penguin Modern European Poets series of which I collected quite a number in the 70s and which, unlike the journals or all my lovely typed and duplicated sheets of poems and extracts (has any former colleague still got a set?) I've kept. The answer was no, but on the shelf was the volume of the other Hebrew poet, Yehuda Amichai. I used him, too -- this one, in fact (probably at Knowles Hill School in Newton Abbot in about 1981):

Poems like this I didn’t know what to do with in the classroom, beyond a rather undirected discussion or an invitation, rarely taken up, to just write something in response. (That, I think, was the result of a university education in which there was almost no serious help with reading modern poetry. The exception was some good teaching on Eliot by John Carey.) But I did know the kids should be reading it, so often we just did that - either I read it with them and came back to poems repeatedly, or I gave them batches to read on their own, which not a few enjoyed doing. As for ‘work’ on them, that more or less stumped me - and I'm not sure what was lost by its absence.

Two thoughts:

Why no Penguin Modern European Poets now? slim, popular, cheap -- older students at Walworth used to buy them. (At least, I know one who did.) Translated poetry is still published, but nowhere near as accessibly. Not everything in our society gets worse, but this is one thing that has.

Does any English teacher in any British state school now use poetry in translation that he or she has found in a real book or journal and not a school (i.e. often exam board) anthology?

Monday, 22 November 2010

Scum of the Earth

Just read Scum of the Earth by Arthur Koestler, 1941 -- nice edition by Eland, 1991. Can’t quite remember why I decided to get it - I think Koestler was in the papers recently, was it a new biography, him screwing the wives of lots of famous people? Anyway, it’s the Fall of France, an episode that interests me, and he just got out of it by the skin of his teeth having been arrested, though Hungarian, before hostilities started, along with many other exiles, including from Germany -- the French ruling class, as he calls them, preparing to do what Hitler wanted before he even attacked.

So, first imprisoned and throughout in diplomatic and bureaucratic limbo, Koestler joined the Foreign Legion hoping to be posted to Africa, was re-arrested and shipped to Le Vernet, a horrific French concentration camp in the Pyrenees, already full of survivors, now reduced to the state of typical camp inmates, from the International Brigade -- fighters who’d escaped from Spain. This was in undefeated France still, note.

The Germans easily knock out the French army, refugees from the north jam the roads to the south, the country is divided into occupied and Vichy, led by the ancient Pétain for whom Koestler expresses unmitigated contempt)... Koestler in the end he escapes via Marseilles and ‘two African ports’ (he’s revealing no secrets -- in 1940-41 when he was writing others might be trying to use the same route) to Lisbon (‘the last open gate of a concentration camp extending over the greater part of the Continent’s surface’ - 242) and finally England where he’s interned in Pentonville and then joins the Pioneer Corps. Meanwhile the democratic German exiles who were his friends, including his Paris neighbour Walter Benjamin, commit suicide or are handed over the the Gestapo and killed.

Most shocking is the near connivance of the French ruling classes, even before the defeat, in the takeover by Hitler.

The ruling class, Koestler said, scared by the coming to power of the Popular Front in 1936, had decided that ‘the barbarians’ (Germans) ‘had begun to develop truly civilised ideas: the abolition of trade unions, the dissolution of the Left-wing parties. Hitler’s only fault was that he was a German. Otherwise he would be a better “guarantee or security” for vested interests than an unruly French people in arms’ (239). And the bureaucracy reflected that position.

With their concentration camps -- not as murderous as the German ones but brutal and sadistic nevertheless -- they (certain politicians and the bureaucracy) were more or less anticipating the Nazi regime.

Those who prepared the way for Vichy had put these men in camps....For every ignominy they made the, prisoners suffer, they comforted them with the argument that the ignominies of the Gestapo would be worse; and when the cock had crowed thrice, they delivered them properly and solemnly into the Gestapo's hands.
In the days of the French collapse there was a last chance of saving those martyred men by shipping them to North Africa or, if that was too much to ask, by giving them a chance to escape. They refused. They left them in their barbed-wire trap, to hand them over complete, all accounts properly made out, all confidential records of their past (given trustingly to the French authorities) neatly filed. What a find for Himmler's black-clothed men ! Three hundred thousand pounds of democratic flesh, all labelled, alive, and only slightly damaged. (140)

Also very interesting on the communists with their virtues and blind adherence to the party line, right or wrong, which left them in a hopeless state when Stalin suddenly became Hitler’s ally (Koestler had been a communist but had left).

And on the chaos of the desperate escape from the north of France to the south: ‘It was a particular sadistic irony of Fate, to have turned the most petit-bourgeoise, fussy, stay-at-home people in the world into a nation of tramps’ (165) -- and then the adverts in the papers, thousands each day, from families seeking news of their children: Paris-Soir ‘Says there are thousands of “globe-trotters aged six and eight on the roads of France”’ (225); ‘André Roure, who disappeared June 17th near Azay-le-Rideau, please communicate with parents via Le Temps Clermont-Ferrand.’

Despite the rush in which he says he wrote the book, the writing is often terrific and moving. On leaving Marseilles and France finally on a ship: ‘The lighthouses emerging from the black water, with slowly turning green and red beams of light, were the last outposts of Continental France, sleeping under the stars in her enormous, dishonoured nakedness, humiliated, wretched and beloved’ (235-6).

That theme of sexual humiliation -- interesting in view of what that biography reported -- is deployed to powerful effect in his summing up of the state of a France that has put a psychological ‘Chinese Wall’ around itself, refusing to acknowledge the new reality of Europe:

Inside, on a brittle Louis XIV chair, sat an elderly, sharp-faced Marianne, her once lovely chestnut hair replaced by a toupet. Scared to death by the noise of the people Outside the Wall, she waited for the barbarian prince to save her. She knew, of course, what price she would have to pay; and while trying to convince herself that he would behave like a gentleman, she waited with a shame-faced curiosity for her dishonour. And when it had happened, and the saviour had knocked off her Phrygian helmet and her wig, she looked into the mirror with horror, and the world looked with horror at her face. (240)

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Bradford's Lost City

Britain’s Lost Cities is a book by Gavin Stamp, subtitled A Chronicle of Architectural Destruction. The destruction was by war and planning, the latter by local councils, but sometimes by other bodies like universities.

Bradford, my home city, features prominently, as it deserves to, and the pictures bring back memories of when I lived in the suburb of Great Horton, or perhaps Wibsey, on a hill on the western, Pennine side of the city, into the centre of which I would descend each morning on the bus, often leaving sunshine and sinking into smog that lasted all day, to get to the grammar school along the valley, running north from the centre, that carried the Beck in a sewer pipe to meet the Aire at Shipley. And at the end of the day I would emerge into late sunshine half way up the steep embankment of St Enoch’s Hill to Wibsey. (We speculated that St Enoch was probably a waistcoated and watch-chained Bradford Alderman, Enoch Priestley or Murgatroyd or some such.)

The trip involved two Corporation buses each way, both good and modern -- Bradford ran things well -- a regular motor bus down into town and a trolley bus out to Frizinghall, or possibly Manningham. (Your place names in Bradford depended on who you wanted to impress.) I got off the first bus in Tyrell Street and walked through to Forster Square (that’s Forster of the 1870 Education Act, another famous Bradford chap) for the trolley bus.

But if I had time I might walk up through the town centre for a change and get the trolley bus on Manningham Lane outside Busbys, the less posh but still respectable one of the two department stores. I’d be even more likely to take that route in reverse on the way home, when I had time to dawdle. One way would be via Ivegate, that looked like this.

Bradford had proper hills -- this was the foothills of the Pennines, all millstone grit rock that that city was built of, little brick and hence far more handsome than Leeds or Manchester, or so I thought, and I've never since been easy living anywhere without hills.

You can see the appeal of steep streets like this, obviously once a medieval country lane, now black with soot and full of interesting shops and firms and reeking of hot pies and fish and chips.

The other way I might go was up, or down, Darley Street, a handsome, evidently planned nineteenth century street from the heyday of Bradford’s civic pride when its concert hall, town hall and wool exchange were built and its fine parks laid out, still beautifully maintained in my day (as I think they still are). Behind the buildings on the left and accessed through wood-and-glass swing doors halfway up the street was Kirkgate Market, and above the entrance one of my favourite haunts, the Central Library with its huge collection, vast wooden tables and dignified reference library, a lovely place to browse or do homework and where I found much of the reading I most enjoyed (the other sources was a good school library) and dug out accounts of Ruskin’s visit to Bradford to advise on the architecture for the town hall. (The advice was rejected but the town hall was still a fine building.)

Anyway, towards the end of my childhood it all began to be destroyed by the planners and replaced by undistinguished and unlovely blocks and road schemes that are now themselves being replaced, if they haven’t already been.

So sad. Planning had been one of sources of wartime success and Labour’s hopes of building the New Jerusalem had rested on it -- and this is how it ended up, a disaster. Hence the passion and anger and despair of Stamp’s book.

Dreams of school

It’s nearly 30 years since I taught in a school but it’s amazing what a big role teaching evidently still plays in my psyche. Being in a secondary school classroom in one situation or another, nice and not nice, is perhaps the most persistent component in my dreams. Sometimes I'm brilliant, sometimes none of the levers work and things decline unstoppably into chaos. In reality being out of control was a small part of my experience -- nearly all the time I was ok -- but those occasions must have burnt themselves into the soul.

No other job that I've done gets so deep into one’s sense of self.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Waterloo train of thought: recognising a good poem

Walking through the pedestrian underpass by Waterloo Station I was thinking of the crap poem I hated and despised that used to be on the wall but is now largely painted out, thank God -- some sad, happy-hippy effort.

I was thinking that most of my English colleagues would agree it was crap. Equally we’d mostly agree on which poems were any good.

Which doesn’t mean there is such a thing as a good or bad poem poem, and that it’s a matter of recognition. The fact that we share some sense of what a good poem is doesn’t mean goodness is a feature of it per se. This sense is something we’ve got from a particular training or socialisation and is, in that trite phrase, ‘socially constructed’.

That doesn’t, however -- this was the following thought -- make our judgement purely subjective. What we share is a really shared thing, a real thing, a thing per se; it exists all right, between us, and enables certain performances. Of course it’s a mental, virtual and cognitive reality, but it’s real in its effect. It’s real specifically in enabling skilled performances.

It enables any one of us, independently of anyone else, to make a valuation, to evaluate a poem as good or not when we encounter it for the first time. But not only that: it’s also a resource of perception, having which means that we notice certain features and find things presenting themselves in particular ways, with certain features perhaps ‘salientised’, others appearing in finer detail than they would to a reader who lacked this shared resource, and so on. With it we observe distinctions and samenesses, and also recognise a certain field of external allusion, to other works and to the world. It makes what we read more significant, more interesting, more subtle or bold and more artful.

I suppose this is what Eliot’s longed-for ‘tradition’ was supposed to supply, or a shared literary culture. No doubt, it’s a real resource, a powerful cognitive amplifier, and much of what it enables us to see is real. So, it’s good to have this sort of ‘cultural capital’ in our kitbag.

The thing, though -- and this where the Eliots, the Leavises and most English teachers of the 1950s and earlier were at fault -- is to be humble with it. The thing is to recognise that other groups too can have their equivalent shared resource, and that what those resources make appear in works is as real as what ours do. The two ‘socially constructed’ ways of seeing are simply incommensurable -- it doesn’t normally seem possible (perhaps I'm wrong here?) to slide from one way of seeing to the other.

Thus: the said English teachers despised pop culture and TV as ‘meretricious’ (a word they loved but never defined and which appears simply to mean they didn’t like it). Along comes another generation, brought up with soaps, kids cartoons and comics but equally well educated and they love this despised stuff stuff and make endless discriminations (that favourite Leavisite word) between the different examples. Their resource (what shall we call it? template? model? standard? none of those seems right) makes things which we find poor, thin and trivial rich, complex and interesting to them.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

On Certain Survivors

On our research project we’re planning a book of our findings and have been trying to think of a title that reflected the notion that developments in English teaching in London after 1945 should be seen within the more general process of post-war reconstruction. I’d come up from somewhere in the back of my mind with Out of the Ruins: [plus the usual more explanatory subtitle].

It occurred to me a couple of days ago that where the phrase came from was an East German Poem by Gunther Kunert that I used to use in school a lot and that came from an anthology by Michael Hamburger. (I see I've mentioned this before -- see this this.

Now I’ve found the poem, as typed out by me long ago, and ‘out of the ruins’ doesn’t come from there at all, so the mystery remains (maybe it’s from David Lodge’s Out of the Shelter, a quite early novel that I’d read only recently about coming out of the war) but it’s such a great poem that I'm moved to share it here.

On Certain Survivors
(Uber einige Davongekommene)

When the man
Was dragged out from under
The debris
Of his shelled house,
He shook himself
and said:
Never again.
At least, not right away.

Gunther Kunert, trans. Michael Hamburger (I think)
From East German Poetry, An Anthology. Carcanet, 1972

I've found the book second-hand on Amazon (of course) - practically free as so often these days -- public libraries and university libraries discarding stock like crazy -- so it’s on its way and I'll be able to check I typed the poem correctly.

PS How many of the many brilliant poems from communist East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia get used in English lessons these days as they were by me and lots of others in the 1970s?

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Who should determine the curriculum?

I mentioned that I was enjoying De Tocqueville’s Ancien Régime -- so elegantly scientific in the manner of Marx and Weber, and so freshly written and modern-seeming. Lately (last few years) I'm reading more history, which I’d always told myself I was interested in but had rarely chosen to read. I like the argument in it, like De Tocqueville asking why, toward the end of the Middle Ages, was the native Germanic law of the northern peoples decisively if gradually supplanted by Roman law. He argues that since the states were very different and yet all changed in this way, there must have been a common cause, and he identifies it.

Reading De T gave me to the following line of thought. He enumerates the functions of the state: administrative, financial, judicial, military etc. Nothing here that isn’t fairly obvious but I would have had to think for a while to come up with them. I.e. I’d never been taught them, though probably most American kids would be as the Americans are hot on their constitution. I think I should have been, perhaps in my school history course. De T’s understanding of the functions is essential to his explanation of the significance of the Revolution (namely, quite different from what was usually supposed), and the UK equivalent would seem equally important to British citizens today.

I'm regularly aware, though, that my history course has nevertheless paid off for me in all sorts of ways that wouldn’t have been specifiable in advance, except in very general terms. I often find myself understanding or being interested in things and realising that it’s because of my school history, of which only the last two years (10 and 11) were well taught, that they have meaning for me. My bit of history is a widow’s cruse, continually delivering significance to my experience. (The pay-offs from my endless and all-consuming classical education, in contrast, were thin indeed.)

It’s a problem, no doubt of it, deciding what should be in a curriculum. Someone has to decide what it is a person needs in order to understand the world and find it meaningful. Who’s in the best position to know that? I would say, those people -- experts, let’s call them -- who are both knowledgeable about the world and culture and reflective about the nature of that knowledge. That sounds like people who combine philosophy and some broad area of knowledge, students both of knowledge itself and of some discipline; there aren’t many such around and we need more. It doesn’t sound like teachers -- with some exceptions -- but when it comes to pedagogy (how can the curriculum actually be taught, if it can -- Michael Gove and Dryden [Gove: UK Sec of State for Education]-- they have to be the deciders. The last person it should be is a politician.

Also, it goes without saying: education isn’t just a curriculum of knowledge as organised in the disciplines. It’s also experience and activity and has an important moral aspect. A crucial contribution of good comprehensive schools, for instance, has been to take diverse groups of children and young people and teach them to sit and talk to each other in a purposeful and respectful way.

The Thames yesterday morning

A resolution I formed not long ago and am keeping to pretty well is that, despite always having loads of work to do (despite in turn being 70% retired), if it was a nice day and I felt like I’d go out and enjoy it, whether for a walk from home or to drift in London. It’s not as if we’re so over-supplied with good weather that want to willingly squander it by staying in.

It helps now that I'm taking walking a bit seriously, after taking a course (six Wednesday mornings in lovely Battersea Park) with Joanna Hall who runs Walkfit and shows you how to walk, for aerobic exercise, not hiking, wearing exercise kit and trainers, unencumbered by shopping, so as to get most benefit from it. (Thoroughly recommended -- it works and she’s good-- see her website.)

So this morning being nice despite the forecast I headed for Hampton Court (two stops on the train) for the walk along the river to Kingston (then home on the bus). Classic autumn morning, tints and that., but the walk was more interesting than usual in that there was regatta on, I think the Teddington Sculls or similar. As I left Hampton Court bridge along the path downstream, boats were assembling for the start. I counted 13 fours. Also hanging around were a couple of pairs and the odd single. I kept walking and passed quite a few more boats moving up to the start. Soon they were coming down and overtaking me from a staggered start with gaps of perhaps 50 or 70 metres. I reckon there were more than 20 fours, then the pairs, then masses of singles and as I walked on there was more and overtaking. Coaches were shouting heartily from bikes on the bank: ‘Let’s go, guys!’ The participants were schoolboys (Kingston Grammar School, I believe - they have a boathouse opposite Hampton Court and probably have rowing on the curriculum between Greek Verse Composition and Calculus -- I hope it wasn’t one of their masters shouting so vulgarly), women, though far fewer, of various ages; and older man, some grunting vociferously to indicate they weren’t effete.

When I got onto Kingston Bridge after 40 or 45 minutes, the fours and pairs had all passed and the last were disappearing downstream, but the singles (are they sculls?) were still coming and indeed were littering the river upstream as far as I could see.

That’s it. Nothing to say about it -- no significance except I'm keeping to my intention to post updates even when I've nothing to say.

But, I was at a school like Kingston Grammar and in the sixth form you could do rowing. The school had a boathouse on the Aire at Saltaire, though the stretch you could row on wasn’t all that long and ended downstream at a scary weir. Anyway, being averse to all proper sports, I did it. Not sure if I enjoyed it but I think I felt the exercise was good, and the river was nice despite smelling a bit effluvious on account of the woollen mills that were still working in those days. I realised this morning, though, that I've no recollection of rowing against other schools though I can’t believe the school would have tolerate a sport without fixtures. (Did the school have a trailer and vehicle to transport the boats?) The teacher (‘master’) in charge was Mr H. Macdonald -- don’t know what he taught and he seemed boring -- as opposed to Mr J. Macdonald who taught French, was also boring (perhaps most grammar school teachers were) and was notorious for taking a party to France and, on the ticket inspector entering the compartment on the train, indicating that they should move outside to confer in the corridor -- such, it was believed, was his incompetence in French.

This (the rowing, not Mr J.) does have significance: we must have had rowing fixtures but I can’t remember them, though they should have been out-of-the-ordinary-run-of-life enough to have been memorable. This was 51 to 52 years ago. Yet our research depends on collecting school memories from 45-65 years ago and it’s clear why so often we hit a brick wall.

Another Brussels encounter

I’ve held off telling you about my second encounter in Brussels while waiting for the person concerned’s ok.

I’d arranged to meet Martin King, who I taught for a year or two in a secondary modern in Wakefield till he left at 16 with one CSE in 1976, after doing a project for me to interview three old men on the village bench about their memories of the First World War (Passchendaele, in fact).

No contact since then until recently I noticed something on Friends Reunited, and as a result we’ve met. Martin drove in from Antwerp one morning to show me Brussels -- expertly (see below) -- and induct me in some unusual beers. (Unfortunately our meeting had to be curtailed so he could get out again: the EU summit was about to open so a ring of steel would come down on the city at 3.)

After leaving school, which he didn’t get on with (for good reasons), Martin went to tech for a couple of years to get more qualifications, joined a band and took off with them to tour Europe. The tour lasted some years, they made records and he was a star in Belgium where he met a Flemish nurse and married. Got into university, ended up lecturing in history and then left when they wouldn’t pass his PhD thesis -- too sensitive, it seems (quite a story there). Off to Hollywood to make a documentary, then Discovery Channel in Canada for another, drawing largely on his specialism: military history -- and especially the First World War. I'm eagerly awaiting his films that are to be on tv, though maybe not here. And he’ll have two books.

In schools nowadays you’re required to write lessons plans that include a statement of ‘learning outcomes’. How about, ‘In 35 years time will pick up this topic again and be inspired to make two documentary series’?'

Here are two clips to give an idea of the them:
<a href=“” target=“_blank”>Greatest Tank Battles</a>
<a href=“” target=“_blank”>Voices of the Bulge</a>

and a notice for the book:
<a href=“” target=“_blank”>Voice of the Bulge</a>.

The trailer from ‘Greatest Tank Battles’ is currently on the ‘Discovery Channel’ in Europe and from January can be seen in the US.

Friday, 5 November 2010


No ideas in this one but have decided that to keep my few followers I need to post regularly. Being too busy (which I have been) shouldn’t be an excuse; I could always post at least a one-liner once a week. Keep me to it.

I'm at the ‘writing up’ stage of my bit of the research (English in three London schools, 1945-65 -- Walworth School is my part, with Pat Kingwell). The task is somewhat tedious: you look at 30 bits of information and can write one sentence as a result. As a result it doesn’t flow, and the text is pedestrian -- I end up saying what happened but not what it means, why significant. That, I suppose, will be the next stage. And I imagine much of what I've written will be discarded as too trivial, too nitpicking or just too much. But I don’t think I can shortcut the process.

By Eurostar to Brussels last week - my first time except to change trains. (Return journey tedious -- 3 hours delay when train broke down, towed back to Brussels, check-in and security all over again, replacement train not ready. But the compensation made it all worth it: another return ticket to Brussels.)

I enjoyed Brussels of course, but one highlights was meeting two of my ex-PGCE students, John and Amy, now married and with a son and teaching at a British international school. On the train and in cafes etc read Camus L’Etranger in French - surprised how easy since I'm not very good. Fantastic novel -- hadn’t realised how good. (Read it English years ago -- can’t remember when). Inspired by that I found a great second-hand shop and bought some more Camus and also de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Revolution, which I also found I could manage. Great book, terrific writing. What made me get that was two things: (1) an interest in the French Revolution, arising from reading Burke and Carlyle (see label); (2) reading Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, which is about de T and his earlier book, Democracy in America, which I’d also looked at. Ancien Régime is a terrific read: intellectual force and lively, spirited writing. It has an argument that holds it together beautifully, and some polemical points for contemporary France (1850s).

There’s more but that will do for now.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The crucial discovery

Reflecting on the post-war history of English teaching (my current research project) I've come up with this brief formulation of perhaps the most important thing that happened:

The content of English had been stuff and a skill: texts and grammar, writing well. Suddenly the discovery was made in the 1950s that the stuff didn’t all have to be imported and introduced from outside the pupils’ world; it could be what they already had, what they could bring in from their worlds. A minority of teachers learned how to work with this (the pupils' ‘experience’) through a newly intensified and protracted way of talking together (‘discussion’) so as to elicit spoken utterances from the pupils that had, at moments, the poetic intensity of the English and Scottish Ballads; and that this generativity in speech could in turn be redirected into the production of poetic written texts.

Two further points:

(1) The discovery was made not in one leap but gradually and in two or three stages. The elicitation of talk in a newly determined spirit and in a new direction--towards the pupils' experience--was developed first as a means of making the ‘stuff’--literature: class readers, literary extracts, poems--more accessible, and then (or perhaps at the same time in some classrooms) of provoking more thoughtful and more deeply felt writing. But it was ‘realised’ (imagined?) finally by some teachers that the pupil experience that was capable of being dealt with in this new way was itself ‘stuff’, a second stuff alongside literature that was potentially of equal value and importance.
Thus a new, more inventive way of pursuing the traditional elements of English--the literature side of the ‘stuff’ and the ‘skill’ of writing well--led to a transformation of the structure of English in two ways: a new stuff was added (in fact displacing the time that had been spent on grammar) and also a new ‘skill’ alongside writing well: talking well, orality, spoken production.

(2) What excited teachers was in part their sense of glimpsing the survival of something thought long lost, the voice of the people, the folk, in that least promising quarter, the ‘degraded’ urban working class--‘mass-media-corrupted’, ‘remote from their roots in the land’. Here in the run-down classrooms of shabby city schools it was as if there was an echo of the world as it had been before ‘disenchantment’ (the effect of print, Reformation and science), even though rationally, as De Certeau says (1984: 131), ‘We no longer believe, as Grundtvig (or Michelet) did, that, behind the doors of our cities, in the nearby distance of the countryside, there are vast poetic and “pagan” pastures where one can still hear songs, myths, and the spreading murmur of the folkelighed (a Danish word that cannot be translated: it means “what belongs to the people”). The poetry was still there, lying dormant in ‘ordinary people’ and waiting to be brought into the open, into speech and then writing, by primary school teachers and English teachers. It was what Charles Parker realised on listening carefully to the field recordings that he made in the 1960s and displayed to the public (not without some manipulation to remove ‘corruptions’) in his Radio Ballads of the 1960s.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Do animals think like us?

Les animaux pensent-ils comme nous? is tomorrow’s topic at the Café Philo in Bondy (I presume that’s a town) for children, 3:30 to 5:00. (Then at 7:00 for adults there’s ‘Is there no happiness but in the moment?’.)

I like the idea of kids nipping down the philosophy caff after school.

Meanwhile in Le Havre there are ‘Philopop’ sessions, the first on ‘Education and Childhood’: ‘What are the reasons why education is necessary? what should its aim be?’’

These from the notices at the end of Philosophie magazine, which I still take (see label philosophy) down the side though rarely read much of -- there’s more than I could manage monthly even if it were in English -- 98 pages this month -- and even though there are lots of witty coloured pictures. Contents include: ‘What is life?’ ‘How could Aristotle justify slavery?’ and the monthly question this issue (‘Vos Questions’) is from ‘Nicolas, 6 ans’ who asks: ‘Clocks tell us the time but they don’t give a damn about the time. (...mais le temps elles s’en fichent). Is there a time for clocks? (or, Do clocks have a time?)’

Apparently there was an hors-série issue (?special issue) on ‘Tintin in the land of the philosophers’, about which some readers have written in with learned points arising from their great ‘intérêt tintinologique’. Perhaps I'll get it.

Debates on Obama are in this issue and topics that in this country would hardly count as philosophical, but also an article and pull-out on Voltaire, stuff on dreams and on night, interviews with philosophers, an article on Locke, book reviews (a Houellebecq novel, book by Cambridge anthropologist Jack Goody attacking European ethnocentrism and a reissue of Sartre’s Sketch of a theory of the emotions).

One gets the sense that philosophy in France is broad and capacious and that the spirit it expresses is widely distributed in French society. Striking how many of the authors are teachers not in universities but in schools.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

A Hand-Reared Boy

Another lovely Corgi cover. This is the first of a trilogy of which I read the second first (click on the label Aldiss [down the side] for my posting about it and to see another fine cover). That one I hadn’t heard of but this I had -- in fact I had the impression it was once notorious so I was expecting it to be just hilariously filthy, since I believed that was its reputation.

It was hilarious, and ‘filthy’ isn’t a concept we use any more but if we did it would be -- but not just. I thought it was an excellent novel -- or perhaps in reality an autobiography. The taboo (in 1970) topic of masturbation was prominent, as was regular sex, and some of the book is indeed very funny, not least his absurd, sad, social-climbing mother, but the book is serious and sensitive. A middle-class boy, son of a bank manager in some dull Midlands city, goes to school and then to public school, and of course is preoccupied with sex -- first with the maid but most notably with the school’s new matron, Sister Traven. But the sex and the love are seen in the context of the boy’s whole character and psychology -- and his doubts about whether his parents love him. Alone at the end, it’s his dad he wants to be there.

The book ends straight after he’s left school and is working in London in the first months of the war. It’s good as a bildungsroman (formation novel) but no less as an account of an era, the atmosphere of 1939 caught memorably, as well as that of suburban semi life in the mid-thirties. It’s probably absurd to say that I found it so genuine that it read as autobiography -- but that’s what, at least in the boy’s inner states, I took it to be.

Concurrently I was reading an actual autobiography that covered the same period and was also set in the suburbs, and I found myself constantly mixing the two stories up.

In Paul Vaughan’s Something in Linoleum his family moves from inner London, along with 1.5m others in the 20s and 30s, to Outer London, in their case to the new suburb of New Malden (near Kingston and a walk away from me in Surbiton). A new school was opened to cope, Raynes Park County School, a grammar school whose head, John Garrett, was co-editor with his friend (and once lover?) W.H. Auden of The Poet’s Tongue, an anthology for schools that I remember from Bradford Grammar School. Vaughan went there in the first intake. Garrett, a homosexual with a camp Oxford voice and a contempt for suburban values, used his literary connections (Auden, Day Lewis, MacNeice, A.L. Rowse -- who wrote a poem about him) to put the school on the map. Prizes on Speech Day were given out not by your usual local dignitary but Lord David Cecil and TS Eliot. The school play was reviewed in the Daily Telegraph, the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. Intellectually, it seems he was rather mediocre and no writer, and in the classroom was ineffectual. In this respect he’s unlike the person he constantly reminded me of (though I never met him), Arthur Harvey, an early head of English at Walworth School.

The art master was Claude Rogers, a future member of the Euston Road School and well represented now in the Tate Collection. I particularly like the painting on the cover, The Painting Lesson, and wonder where one can see his portrait of John Garrett.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Selborne in the news

Guardian obituary this morning, death of Alastair Aston who lived in Selborne. My colleagues on the research project I'm working on and many others who had taught in London schools knew him as a humane and intelligent English inspector in ILEA (the Inner London Education Authority -- now long gone).

It’s another example, incidentally, of the frustrations of oral history. We had it in mind to interview Alastair about his period in ILEA but, once again, we left it too late.

'Get on!'

Had the odd word in Waitrose, as I occasionally do, with a young chap who is often working there and who I’d originally taken for a teenage school leaver but who, when I first asked him about where they’d hidden the jars of plums after their refurbishment, was clearly older and turned out to be a recent graduate in sports science and business studies who was working part-time and in the vacations -- and now, temporarily he says, in what is, in terms of his ambitions, unemployment.

He reckons now to be filling in time and making some money while looking for a job, but I don’t know how serious that is. Last week he’d expected his Waitrose work to be finishing at the weekend but today he’s back and apparently learning the bakery/patisserie section -- couldn’t say no, he said, to the money, I suppose. Fair enough. He doesn’t seem unhappy with the situation.

Neville Newhouse, however, English master at Bradford Grammar School in the 1950s, would have said that he should be. ‘Get on! don’t waste time! got to get on!’ he used say, and what he meant was not ‘get on with your work’ or ‘get on with covering the syllabus’ but, more generally, get on with the task of youth, or of grammar school youth, which is to develop your mind, acquire knowledge, grow intellectually, read, write, think, learn.

Newhouse would have said that our lad in Waitrose, clearly bright and alert, should have developed in education a sense of the value of his own mind and be working to develop it, and not be wasting his life in a supermarket. If the school had done its job, an active mind (‘lively mind’ was one of his phrases) and an established habit of engaging with knowledge, ideas and one’s own thought would have led to a constant and insatiable desire to know more; each encounter with a book or thought would have stoked curiosity and extended the need to explore further, follow leads, see what else was there. As Jara Rakusan, a colleague in Carleton University, Ottawa, once remarked in the corridor when some of were sharing the fact that as adults we rarely found ourselves being bored: ‘No, because what goes on in us is unending semiosis’ -- one (mental) sign triggering another.

It seems a good criterion for an education that it should leave its students with minds in that state.

(And a critique of Waitrose, with, apparently, a high proportion of bright and educated young staff, might be that for all its benignity its provides an environment in which its people can live contented working lives without having an idea in their minds ever again. Or is that unfair?)

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Josipovici and Lucy

I've been reading about Gabriel Josipovici’s new book, Whatever Happened to Modernism?, including an article by him in the New Statesman, and now I've got the book. I've been trying to formulate what I think about it all but am still too muddled to manage a general comment.

In general, though, for Josipovici, Modernism and its predecessors (back to Cervantes and Rabelais) was a response to the ‘disenchantment of the world’ that came with the loss of the certainties of the medieval world. Moderns works were attempts to retrieve whatever was retrievable or at least to give voice to the sense of loss. (That’s a very crude provisional formulation: the argument is far more complex and subtle than that.)

Wordsworth was one who, if I understand Josipovici aright, managed such a retrieval. Josipovici first speaks of Wordsworth’s Boy of Winander who ‘“was taken from his mates, and died/ In childhood, ere he was full twelve years old.”’ He says (p.57)

To arrive at that point he must also have understood that dying in childhood, far from being a mere accident, was the boy's destiny; or, to put it more neutrally, that death and life form part of the same warp and weft and must be grasped as one. That this is what the poem, at its deepest, is saying is confirmed by another group of poems written in those miraculous years, the so-called 'Lucy' poems, especially the greatest and most compressed of them:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Lucy, we learn from the other poems in the cycle, died, like the Boy of Winander, while still a child. What this poem asserts and the others merely hint at is that by dying she fulfilled herself and that now in death she really is what the poet always sensed her to be, as mortal and immortal as the earth itself. Wonderfully, he conveys that this is a dynamic, not a static state: she is not beneath the earth but, like the rocks and stones and trees, 'rolled round in earth's diurnal course’... (57)

On the issue of interpretation, I'm not sure he’s right: the poet might rather be despairing that Lucy is now nothing more than the rocks and stones, in contrast with the shining star that she had been in ‘She dwelt among th’untrodden ways’ (‘Fair as a star, when only one/ Is shining in the sky’). In that preceding poem, after all, he ends ‘But she is in her Grave, and Oh!/ The difference to me.’

But if the speaker believes (rather than is trying to convince himself) that Lucy is ‘as mortal and immortal as the earth itself’ and that ‘death and life form part of the same warp and weft and must be grasped as one’, he doesn’t comfort me in my own secure conviction that an individual human life is a flash in the pan and isn’t part of anything larger, except as a component of ‘Gaia’ or as minutely affecting the earth’s ecology. Nor do I understand what such a belief would be like.

I'm touched, rather, by the fine vision of the unity of life and death -- all rolled round together on the planet; it affects me though I don’t buy it intellectually; so that whether or not the speaker, or Wordsworth, really believes it it is irrelevant to me as a reader of poetry.

I recognise that, in the crudity of my 21st century sensibility, I don’t feel with any great force a sense of loss and deprivation at not living in an ‘enchanted’ world of spiritual certainties, though, if Modernism springs from that sense, as experienced by artists, musicians, poets and writers who feel more deeply than me, then its works touch me nevertheless.

But when Josipovici says (p.55) that ‘art, in the hands of the greatest masters [such as Wordsworth], will always find a way out of the impasses philosophy and cultural history reveal’, I need more convincing -- at least in relation to philosophy. Whatever it is that art does, I doubt if it’s that, I'm afraid, attractive though the idea is.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Selborne, Hants

I recently read Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne (1788). Selborne, the Hampshire village of which he was curate, is walkable (10km) from Alton, an hour down the line from my station. It was nice the other day, I needed air and exercise so off I went.

I got the route from a Time Out website and followed it on the OS map:

Click (as always) to enlarge. Alton is just off the map, top left. I followed the green blobbed footpath to Selborne.

The countryside in the south-east can be boring -- vast fields of monoculture -- and especially when either the sun’s not out or wind and sky aren’t in some way lively. Sun there was when I left Alton station, though it didn’t last the whole walk, but also monotonous fields, if interestingly contoured, this being chalk country. And unlike Surrey, where one spends too much time in dark woods, after the first mile or two there was alternating woodland, some of it lovely oak, and small fields. And unlike in Surrey where the only livestock are girls’ horses, there were proper animals -- cows and sheep -- as well.

I took some photos, though as a photographer I've rather lost heart since Neil, my son-in-law, got a new camera that takes images that are sharper, brighter and more interesting. I suppose I could buy one but doubt if I’d want to carry it on walks: it’s bulkier and heavier, against mine which could go in my pocket if the dust and fluff didn’t get in the works.

Anyway, by the time the scenery got nice, the sun had gone in and I've concluded that, at least with my camera, taking photographs when there’s no sun is a waste of time. But here are some of the least useless -- including a couple for which the flash provided the sun.

The sort of countryside White walked and rode (and observed and hunted) in:

Inside his church (the arches are Norman, at the stage en route from rounded to pointed):